For third L&G vote, budget talk still a ‘challenge'
TOWNSHEND -- In spite of two elections, multiple meetings, expensive mailers and detailed online posts, Leland & Gray School Board members still wonder whether they're connecting with residents regarding the district's proposed budget.
The spending plan has been rejected twice and is due for an Australian Ballot revote April 29. But only a dozen residents showed for an informational meeting Thursday night, and that was a big improvement over the four adults who attended a similar session prior to the second budget vote.
"It's been a real challenge," said Emily Long, board chairwoman.
The third vote -- this time on a revised, $6.94 million spending plan for the regional middle and high school -- will happen Tuesday. Polling places are as follows: Brookline town office, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Jamaica town office, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Newfane town office, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Townshend town hall, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Windham town office, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Officials are calling attention to the fact that, in Newfane, the polling place has been relocated from NewBrook fire station to the town office.
"We really would encourage you to tell all your friends to vote. Please vote," Long said at Thursday night's meeting in the Leland & Gray library.
The fiscal year 2015 budget first was proposed at roughly $7 million, a 2.8 percent increase over the current year's spending. It failed Feb. 5 on a 132-122 vote; only 7 percent of the district's registered voters cast ballots amid a snowstorm that day.
The School Board subsequently received a petition for reconsideration signed by nearly 200 residents. That meant the board legally was obligated to present the same budget for a revote, and it failed again on April 2 by just one vote; the tally was 300-299, representing a record turnout for an Australian Ballot on the school's budget.
The nature of that secret-ballot vote, however, leaves some administrators frustrated. Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Steven John on Thursday declared that "it's much easier to pass a school budget when the citizens come out to a meeting and face each other and have a conversation with the board."
"With Australian Ballot ... you've lost that opportunity for conversation. And you can see, even though many of you loyal citizens are out here tonight, we have no way of engaging the public sufficiently to have them informed about these issues," John told the few in attendance at Thursday's meeting.
After two votes, "we still, as a board or administration, don't know which way to turn regarding that budget because we haven't had the benefit of a meeting" with a large number of voters, John added.
Nonetheless, the board has made budget cuts in advance of Tuesday's vote including:
-- The board dumped two capital projects -- $32,500 for food-service upgrades and $25,000 for insulation. While administrators had made a strong case that Leland & Gray requires cafeteria and kitchen renovations, the project had been controversial.
"It was pretty clear to us that we needed to take that out," Long said.
-- Also nixed was an initial, $7,000 payment on the new drivers' education vehicle.
-- Teacher-training costs were reduced due to grants obtained by the supervisory union.
-- New enrollment projections led to lower tuition costs for Windham Regional Career Center.
-- Field-trip funding was cut by half, from $8,000 to $4,000.
-- Retirements allowed staffing reductions in physical education and cooperative/career studies.
-- The School Board's budget for legal services was cut.
Officials noted that, since the budget initially was proposed in December, there have been some projected cost increases in areas including school counseling, special education and instructional staff.
Frank Rucker, Windham Central's chief financial officer, said special-education costs can fluctuate greatly even with relatively small shifts in enrollment or student need.
"We certainly can't ignore that, once there's a determination that there's a need," Rucker said.
With the board's cuts somewhat offset by those increases, the revised budget proposal is $56,133 lower than the original. It now represents a 1.9 percent increase over current year's spending.
Revised budget documents are available on the school's website, www.lelandandgray.org. Administrators also sent out a mailer to voters.
Questions at Thursday night's forum included an inquiry about a 25-percent hike in the supervisory union's assessment. That has been a common theme, and officials reiterated two reasons for that jump: Some technology costs have been shifted out of the Leland & Gray budget and into the supervisory union's budget, and Leland & Gray's proportion of the union's overall costs has increased due to the school's enrollment.
"While our enrollment has gone down, it has actually increased proportionally" within the supervisory union, Long said.
There also were continuing questions about hard feelings among Townshend voters. It was the only town rejecting Leland & Gray's budget on April 2, and by a wide margin -- 41 yes votes to 127 no.
Joe Winrich, a Townshend representative on the Leland & Gray board, said he has heard "anecdotal feedback" that the previously proposed spending on kitchen renovations and a drivers' education car was deemed excessive.
"I've also heard, ‘It's just too much,'" Winrich said. "It's not any specific area. It's simply the whole education cost."
Ongoing tensions between the school and its host community also seem to have played a role in the negative votes.
"There is some level of frustration with the fact that the school is physically here," Winrich said. "The students cause parking problems. One woman told me that she's tired of dodging the guys who drive fast out of the parking lot every day, and so she's just going to vote the budget down."
Long said the board has attempted to address those problems when possible.
"We have tried as hard as could to be good neighbors," she said. "But there isn't any question that we are going to be an impact."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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